Overtourism: Some Proactive Solutions
In August 2018 I was privy to a free-flowing expert analysis of overtourism. The discussion was refreshing, eye-opening and vexing in equal measure. The panel debate in Bangkok was to honour 25 years of Khiri Travel. The session was about the next 25 years in travel.
In the debate, overtourism was clearly a hot topic. It galvanised the four Asia-based panellists: Willem Niemeijer, the founder of Khiri Travel, David Keen the CEO of tourism branding and strategy company, QUO, Mario Hardy, the CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, and Randy Durband, the CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council.
They noted that overtourism impacts only a very small percentage of tourism destinations. Typically, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Venice are often cited. But Asia has its challenges too.
“I profoundly fear for over-visited places like Bali, Phuket, Samui and Pattaya,” said Keen.
Durband agreed. “There are places beyond hope. It would take a miracle to save them,” he said.
It was pointed out that only 6% of Chinese people have passports, and, as an outbound tourism force, India hasn’t even got going yet. With 80% of the world’s population living in cities by 2030, said Hardy, tourist demand for green places, nature and peace will only escalate.
The implication was simple. Overtourism is likely to get worse before it gets better.
“There are a shit load of places that can still be ruined,” lamented Keen. “Destinations will be destroyed by governments having little understanding or control,” he predicted.
So what can be done? I mean overtourism is, in theory, just poor management of capacity. Unfortunately, it’s easier to prevent overcrowding in the first place than help a place recover from it.
However, the four panellists clearly showed there were proactive steps that governments, companies and tourists could take.
Niemeijer said governments should be positive and step in with measures to boost tourism development in less-visited places. He praised the “12 Hidden Gems” campaign by the Tourism Authority of Thailand which promotes secondary destinations such as Nan, Buriram, Petchabun, and others.
He said there should be tax and investment incentives to attract international brands to 'new' upcountry destinations.
Durband told the audience he wanted to see governments move beyond spending tourism dollars on marketing and put more into quality control and better geographical dispersal of visitors.
He said, for example, that some of the best Khmer temple sites in Asia were in the relatively untouristed Northeast of Thailand. However, thousands of people insist on shuffling around Angkor Wat in Cambodia each day.
There was another partial solution. Niemeijer recommended that overcrowding at places such as the Grand Palace in Bangkok should be addressed by making tourists book and pay for tickets in advance. This would weed out the casual visitor who wasn’t genuinely curious about the Grand Palace, but was just following a group itinerary. This works well for museums in Paris, Amsterdam and New York, he said.
In the overtourism debate, does digital technology help or hinder?
TripAdvisor, Google searches and destination apps may be part of the problem, said Niemeijer. He pointed out that search and following review tips had a snowballing effect that seemed to drive an increasing number of visitors to fewer ever busier hotspots.
The debate in Bangkok ended with all four tourism practitioners pledging to continue their work for responsible, low-impact tourism, especially in destinations that still clearly benefit from the positives that tourism brings.
Ten Ways to Combat Overtourism
When I returned from Bangkok I reread an excellent summary of overtourism by Elle Hunt in the Guardian newspaper in UK. Elle’s overview drew on an extensive 64-page overtourism report called “Coping with Success: Managing Overcrowding in Tourism Destinations” by consultancy firm McKinsey & Company. (It is available to download free here.)
In her article, Elle/McKinsey said there were at least nine practical steps that could be taken to combat overtourism:
Spread tourists around more – not just regionally within countries, but to different city neighbourhoods
Encourage tourists to visit at different times of the day, season or year
Try to attract ‘good’ tourists such as niche ones who have specific interests such as architecture, food, music, art. (They often become great ambassadors for a destination.) Stag and booze parties (male or female) shouldn’t be made welcome
Abandon the obsession with growth in arrival numbers
Adjust pricing: make peak periods more expensive, low demand times cheaper; consider lower price entry tickets for local residents so that they can access their own heritage
Halt or limit construction of hotels; put a cap on the number of weeks or months that local residents can use their property for renting to tourists through websites such as Airbnb and booking.com. Destinations such as Paris, Amsterdam, New York and Reykjavik have started doing this
Consider higher taxes and more corporate accountability for low cost airlines and home rental websites geared to tourists
Collate accurate data from multiple sources (such as hotels, airlines, restaurants, local government) to really see where the problems and opportunities are
Plan thoroughly. Engage local residents and stakeholders and ask them specific questions such as: How many tourists do you want? When do you want them? How many hotel rooms will that need? Then create a plan and implement it.
(Niemeijer’s point). Get tourists and tour operators to book tickets to attractions in advance of travel.
It is clear overtourism is here to stay -- but that measures will be increasingly taken to counter it. However, with outbound tourism from China and India just starting, don’t expect miracles.
And remember, we’re all tourists. You, me, him, her -- them over there. Seven billion of us. We should all defend our right to travel thoughtfully, mindfully, to experience the variety of this wonderful world. Travel is still a beautiful, beautiful thing.
With that in mind, I now recommend all tourists who are planning a trip to play “You Can Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac. Then book a trip to Siberia.
Published 22 September 2018